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Ask the experts: a changing voter electorate

This week Maria Hinojosa traveled to Clarkston, Georgia to discuss with members of the town how the demographic shift has affected them and the community at large. This is not just a shift in a single town in Georgia, it is a larger change to our national society. We asked a number of experts on what to make of this trend and how it might affect the 2012 election.


Our contributors:

Kareem Crayton, a native Southerner and currently an associate professor of law at UNC, is a scholar whose work integrates law, politics and race. He is one of the few academic experts in the nation who combines the formal skills from law and political science to address questions about the relationship between race and politics in modern institutions. His commentary, insights, and analysis on politics and voting matters regularly appear in media outlets including the LA Times, SCOTUS Blog, NPR, and Fox News. Before entering the legal academy, Professor Crayton served as a foreign law clerk to Chief Justice Sandile Ngcobo on the Constitutional Court for the Republic of South Africa and as a law clerk to Judge Harry T. Edwards on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit.

Andrew Gelman is a professor of statistics and political science and director of the Applied Statistics Center at Columbia University. He has received the Outstanding Statistical Application award from the American Statistical Association, the award for best article published in the American Political Science Review, and the Council of Presidents of Statistical Societies award for outstanding contributions by a person under the age of 40. He has written a number of books, most recently, Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State: Why Americans Vote the Way They Do (with David Park, Boris Shor, Joe Bafumi, and Jeronimo Cortina). Andrew has done research on a wide range of topics, including: why it is rational to vote; why campaign polls are so variable when elections are so predictable; and why redistricting is good for democracy.

Jude Joffe-Block is a public radio reporter covering demographic change and immigration. She is the Phoenix correspondent for Fronteras: The Changing America Desk, a public media collaboration among several public radio stations in the Southwest. Previously, she covered Las Vegas for the same initiative. She is a graduate of U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and Yale University, and was a Fulbright Scholar in Mexico. See some of her latest work here.


How specifically have changing demographics affected voting patterns or voter priorities over the past few elections?

Kareem Crayton: States that have traditionally been solidly in the Republican column, like North Carolina, and Virginia, have become far more competitive in part due to the shifting of new populations into key areas like Northern Virginia and the Research Triangle region of North Carolina. This not only includes larger number of non-white voters, but more moderate to progressive white voters who have relocated to these states from other places.

Andrew Gelman: More nonwhites, that’s been helping the Democrats; more old people, that’s been helping the Republicans.

Jude Joffe-Block: I think one of the most interesting tidbits from the 2008 election was the demographic data of the new voters who participated that year. A census survey found that five million more Americans said they voted in that election compared to 2004. While the number of white voters who participated was steady, the number of black and Latino voters both increased by 2 million. An additional 600,000 Asians also voted that year.

Still, it is important to also note that Latino and Asian voter participation was much lower that presidential cycle compared with participation among blacks and whites. In this way, low turnout is holding back even more dramatic demographic changes in the make-up of who votes in this country.

Do ‘coalitions’ within the changing demographics contribute to the general polarization of American politics? Or does it force a more centrist and collaborative electorate?

KC: Coalitions that align voters of different racial groups have not traditionally been as robust in the American South as in states like California and New York, but the current trends in some states like the aforementioned North Carolina and Virginia suggest that such new alliances are possible. The issue of polarization is a complex one, since one must try to distinguish polarization based upon race and polarization that is rooted in partisanship. Generally, the nation is heavily polarized with regard to party – as it has been for the last few election cycles.

The question of racial polarization is more mixed. In the places where these multi-racial coalitions exist, the level of racial polarization is (by definition) not as high. However, in North Carolina and Virginia, where these coalitions tend to benefit Democrats, the Republican party has been less supportive of using election policies like redistricting to promote those relationships. Part of this strategy is typical partisan wrangling; however, where those policies are advocated on the grounds that federal laws like the Voting Rights Act demands them, I think that Republicans run into serious legal problems.

AG: The electorate is pretty centrist, but, as the recent Republican primaries have shown, candidates often feel a need to be extreme.

Do trends suggest new voters (migrants, immigrants, young voters) will feel an affinity for any one party over the other – or will we see a rise in Independents?

KC: There remains a significant though not huge number of independents in the electorate, but it’s hard to characterize this group by a single ethnic/racial profile. This is largely due to the serious polarization on issues important to many non-white groups (immigration, affirmative action, etc.).

AG: Lots of people say they’re independent but they can still end up voting predictably for one party or another.

JJB: There are certainly trends linking ethnic minority voters and immigrant voters to the Democratic party but when you drill down, there are nuances worth noting. Latino registered voters skew Democrat, but there have been some ups and downs in recent years over how strong that affiliation is. A 2011 Pew Hispanic Center graph shows Democratic affiliation among Latinos had started to slip in the early 2000’s but has been on the rise since 2006, and reached a high in 2011 (at 67 percent).

There’s also evidence that Asian-Americans lean Democrat as well (with the notable exception of Vietnamese-Americans) but perhaps more importantly, many are still undecided when it comes to party affiliation. A survey known as the National Asian American Survey of more than 5,000 Asian and Asian-American voters in 2008 found almost 30 percent of Asian voters undecided the month before the presidential election. As pointed out by one of the authors, political scientist Karthick Ramakrishnan, there is an important distinction between voters like these who haven’t made up their minds, and Independents who have chosen not to align with a party. Ramakrishnan and others have suggested that political campaigns should be trying much harder to court the Asian-American vote, since these voters could very well be up for grabs for party affiliation.

The focus so much in this current election has been on the state of the American economy. Is the economy the over-riding issue for those groups that continue to exert influence on this election, such as millennials, immigrants, etc?

KC: It’s hard to deny that the economy is the single overriding issue that informs virtually every question presented in this campaign. Jobs, immigration, social programs all depend upon a thriving economy that works to “lift all boats”. Added to this point is the fact that many of the non-white voters mentioned above are experiencing (and have for some time) far more drastic negative effects of the economy (in terms of unemployment levels, poverty rates, debt, income loss) than the average American.

AG: The economy is almost always the #1 issue in a presidential election. In off-year elections for congress, partisan balance is a big issue. We saw this in 2006 (to the Democrats’ benefit) and 2010 (to the Republicans’).

Nate Silver over at FiveThirtyEight redefines ‘swing states’ in terms of elasticity-in the same way we define elastic and non-elastic terms in economics (an elastic variable is one which responds a lot to small changes in other parameters.) Therefore, states that are very elastic are more sensitive to changes in “political conditions.” With the changing demographics we’re seeing in places such as Georgia, a state that rates historically very inelastic, will we see a shift in more states’ elasticity in the coming elections?

KC: It’s hard to say how “elastic” these states will be, but I think political conditions certainly matter in close states, since a small shift changes the outcome. The more these new groups become entrenched voters in these states (which remains at odds, with Voter ID laws and the like under challenge), the more likely these states become more subject to year-to-year shifts.

AG: What Nate is doing is fine, but, really, the swing states are the ones near the national median in their vote: Ohio, etc. The elasticity stuff is fun but I don’t think it’s really necessary for understanding the idea of a swing state.

What do you think will be the most important factor in determining the outcome of this election?

KC: Mobilization and turnout. As always. In the states that are considered battle grounds, the campaigns are working hard to increase their performance compared to last time. And they will have unprecedented sums of money to meet their goals. Thus, every vote cast will be crucial to the very slim margin of victory.

AG: #1 is how the economy is doing. The other important factors are campaign spending (Romney and his allies have a lot of money still to dump into the campaign) and political ideology (here, Romney is in trouble with his recent remarks about the 47% etc.).